Thursday, January 19, 2017

Opening Lines (2)

I last wrote on opening lines two months ago, but I recently joined a FB group called First Line Monday, where we post the opening sentence or sentences of a book we’re reading or have read. (Or intend to read. No one checks.) This has proved to be more fun than I expected, and I spend a leisurely few minutes pulling books from shelves and rereading first lines. Over the few weeks I’ve been a participant, I’ve become pickier and pickier about what I’m willing to post. There’s a reason for this.

To my surprise, about four out of five books open with the weather, either by describing the season or the day or the promise of the week to come. At the end of this line is a shorter one about someone who’s cranky despite the sunny weather. The sentences are usually well crafted though not arresting in style or vocabulary, and they do promise the style of the story to come.

I’m self-conscious about opening lines right now because I’m trying to come up with a good opening for my current WIP. I have only 15,000 words left to write but I still have to go back and redo the opening. What I have doesn’t seem to work; at least it doesn’t feel right.

Generally, I think there are four broad choices for opening a story. The physical setting (weather, location, time), character description, character in action, and an incident (arrival of a letter, for example, or a looming danger). These are broad categories designed to help me focus on something other than weather, which I didn’t use but seems to pop up no matter when I’m writing a beginning.

There’s no question that getting the first line right is important and can be the hardest part of the novel to write. But a good opening becomes a classic. The American Book Review lists the hundred best opening lines, including the opening of Moby-Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, 1984, Slaughterhouse Five, The Color Purple, and Paradise. To read the whole list, go here.

Reading these opening lines helps me move past orienting the reader in physical space, and closer to locating the reader in the psychological space of the novel. I want her to feel like she has walked up to a friend or acquaintance and sees what she’s doing, and wonders why. I want the reader to be in the story, not sitting in a seat in a noisy theater waiting for the curtain to rise.

Once I have located my character in her life, I’m reading for inviting the reader in. There are plenty of ways to do this. On her website Bryn Donovan lists, not first lines, but ways to begin a novel. One suggestion is the arrival of a letter. Another is a courtroom scene, which is used in Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. Donovan lists thirty openings, and gives examples for most of them. You can find her website here.

In the seventh Mellingham mystery, Come About for Murder, I open with a funeral. “In his last will and testament, Commodore Charles Jeremiah Winslow, one of the greatest yachting enthusiasts in the history of Mellingham Yacht Club, asked to be wrapped in a mainsail and cremated, with his ashes left to sink into Mellingham Bay. His family argued for six days and six nights over whether or not to comply with his wishes, but when they understood how much money was riding on this, they agreed to do as he wanted.”

This is a story about sailing, and the people who live to be out on the water. And they also clearly have the money to spend as much time as they want sailing along the east coast. To read more, go here.

Crafting a strong opening for a novel is perhaps the hardest writing but also the best. A good opening sets the stage for the story and draws in the reader. We all have our favorite opening lines, and I find myself returning to them when I’m working on my own.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Daily Word Count

I’m almost exactly in the middle of my current WIP, and I know my subconscious has figured out the ending by the change in my daily word count. There are lots of signs that a manuscript is going well, but my changing daily tally seems to be one of the most reliable.

Like most other writers, I set myself a daily goal, usually fifteen hundred words. If I don’t meet this figure, I feel like I’ve been slacking off. But this is a guide, not a requirement. On some days my word count is as low as five hundred, and on other days the number can run up to six thousand.

Any figure over two thousand makes me uncomfortable because I question how good the scenes can be if I’m pushing out such a high word count. I once listened to a writer talk about his daily goal of fourteen thousand words. I wasn’t the only one in the audience who gasped. Was he really this good? Was he really that brave? He went on to explain that he felt he had to get the outlines of the story on paper. He had to see the skeleton lying on the sidewalk, in order to feel he had some control over the plot line. After he got through his first draft, which took him barely a week or two, he went back and worked through each sentence. His process sounded a lot like automatic writing. He just let the words pour out without any thought as to how good they were or whether they made any sense. This is a writer who truly had learned to shut off his inner critic.

I would never attempt to write at such a rate. But when I write only five hundred words in a day I look for a reason. There are several. First, I begin my work for the day by going back over what I’ve written the day before. I’m likely to cut lines, perhaps even an entire scene, or rewrite a crucial passage that I pondered all night. If I cut eight hundred words and add in nine hundred, my net gain is only about a hundred words. And then I write five hundred more. I guess I can say that I’ve met my quota for the day. A second reason is that I come to a passage that requires more research, so I stop to work on that. This may take all morning, leaving me less time to meet my quota, but it may also give me material that will ensure I don’t have to rewrite the passage later. A third reason is that I’m stuck. I don’t know what’s happening in the story and I have to stop and think it through. Frustrating but necessary.

In Come About forMurder, I spent a lot of time reworking the final scenes on the water. On those days my word counts were pretty low, but in the end I was satisfied. I did a lot of rewriting of the short story “Variable Winds,” in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (October 2016), to make sure the technical information was correct and clear in very limited space. Some things just take more time.

I keep a running list of my daily word count, as well as what has happened in each scene, and both tell me if I’m on track. There are times when the daily tally doesn’t matter, but in general this is one simple guide that lets me know if I’m on track, or need to rethink the direction of my WIP.

For this and other work in the Mellingham series and the Anita Ray series, go here.